No Silver Bullets or Superheroes
A recent report out of Chicago (free EdWeek registration required) finds that the more than 100 charter schools there are, on average, performing at the same level as the Chicago Public Schools system. A few months ago, Milwaukee reported that its voucher schools are, at best, performing at the same level as the public district. These findings add to the growing pile of data that shows there's more to closing the achievement gap than trying to get around the public school bureaucracy.
Supporters of choice programs—whether charter schools or vouchers for private schools—will often defend their preferred solution by pointing out that charter and voucher schools often get the same results as the public schools for less spending. To this, I would reply that choice schools are often working with a student body that's predisposed to higher levels of achievement than the overall public schools.
This requires that we dive into the true heterogeneity of the student population. Yes, we define the achievement gap based on trends from socioeconomic and racial groups. The risk in this approach is that we assume that those segments are roughly homogeneous within themselves. Reality, as always, is more complicated.
Within “at-risk” populations, students still come from a variety of backgrounds. A student who qualifies for reduced-price lunch because their family is at 180% of the poverty line is likely in a different situation than the student whose family is actually below the poverty line. Both students may come from the same race, and both would be identified as “economically disadvantaged” for the purpose of income-based achievement gap analysis, but their situations could in fact be quite different.
Choice schools, by their nature, do not pull from all student groups equally. Instead, they pull from those families that have the motivation and resources necessary to pursue alternatives to the public schools. Choice school students, then, are disproportionately likely to have higher family support than students whose families did not pursue choice school opportunities. This means that choice school student bodies are more likely to perform well to begin with.
In fact, data from Chicago's choice program (PDF) a few years ago confirmed that applying to a choice school was a better indicator of student performance than actually getting in. Students who applied to choice schools but whose names weren't selected in the acceptance lottery did just as well as students who were accepted. In other words, whether a school was a choice school or not made no difference in student performance. Students who expressed interest in choice schools did better than students who didn't express interest regardless of which school they actually attended.
With this understanding, choice schools that aren't doing better than nearby publics should be suspected of underperforming. Taking students who are predisposed to success and then sinking them to the average isn't something to crow about, even if you spend less money than the public schools to make it happen.
This is not meant to needlessly disparage all choice schools. Some are clearly doing wonderful things for their students. However, it's time for us to start taking a hard look at what the true determinants of student success are and how public policy can get more creative in addressing them.
For starters, we should look more closely at what constitutes a high-quality early childhood experience. The evidence we have available suggests that the achievement gap in kindergarten doesn't grow or shrink over the course of students' education. The gap that starts young stays in place regardless of schooling environment, so we should do more to focus on that gap.
This means engaging more with new families in at-risk populations. It means more prenatal support, better access to the information and resources that give higher income groups an edge in childhood cognitive development, and better access to strong and affordable child care and preschool opportunities. It means more proactive engagement with families by schools and districts.
In any case, we need to move away from a mindset that says the reason for the achievement gap is simply public schools not trying hard enough. Other systems don't work any better, and it's quite possible that focusing on K-12 schools is trying to intervene when it's already too late. Yes, we can provide anecdotes of superhuman efforts helping a handful of kids, but an education system full of superheroes is not a viable option. We need to move past stories of superteachers or superschools and broaden our view of the problem.